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Staying ahead in the convenience store industry has always meant finding innovative solutions to save time and money. Today, that usually means technology upgrades. And the technology upgrade more and more business owners are turning to is the cloud. Also known as SaaS or software as a service technology, the cloud allows c-store owners to connect all their data in one location.
For c-stores with a fueling operation, having access to this real-time data is even more important. Fuel costs, competitor pricing and even your profit margins are constantly changing. For those running multiple stores in multiple locations, keeping track of all these numbers becomes even more of a chore. Past technology solutions helped with organization but lacked the connectivity between programs.
With the cloud, anyone with an Internet connection can access and edit a central dashboard from anywhere in the world. Fuel barrel prices went up? One click and all your gas station prices can be bumped up to keep consistent profit margins. Today's technologies can even customize margins for you.
Say a c-store owner says he or she would like to make X gross margin on his/her fueling operation. Today's software can incorporate that number and automatically reset retail prices based on cost inputs. Many can even be linked to electronic signage, making the price change and informing customers instantaneously.
In addition to these fuel-centric benefits, the ability to manage all stores based on one dashboard can also pay off when addressing simple accounting and bookkeeping issues. Dianne Bonner, officer/manager at Wykstra Oil Co., which operates five c-stores across Michigan, said cloud technology has allowed management to track sales, payrolls, payables and more across all stores.
"Having all our reports in one place allows us to compare stores, check on item sales or quickly see if the numbers don't match up correctly," Bonner said. "It eliminates a lot of the spreadsheet work that would usually be necessary among all the locations."
Another major convenience of utilizing cloud technology is the lack of physical infrastructure. By eliminating the need to host servers, you also eliminate the need to maintain and service those servers. There is no need to learn IT protocol, hire an IT staff or outsource experts for regular updates/problems.
Kim Higginson, President of One-Stop Express in Poseyville, Ind., learned the benefits of offsite infrastructure through experience. It was not long ago -- before he implemented cloud technology -- that an ice storm knocked out power to his store, damaged his server and put his business at a complete standstill. Now using cloud technology, that problem was eliminated.
"Just recently we lost power again, but with just a generator and an Internet card, we were back running in no time," Higginson said. "We were able to run our complete software package while the competition could only sit and wait for a utility crew to fix the power."
Higginson also noted the amount of travel he was able to eliminate with cloud technology. A former owner of as many as 14 c-stores, he no longer has to visit each location individually to make IT improvements. When upgrades or patches are required, they could easily be implemented to all store locations through one server. He could even perform automatic data backups rather than requiring employees to perform manual backups each night.
Yet will all these benefits, perhaps the best part of cloud technology is the ability to incorporate the unknown. As most people know, technology is considered out of date almost as fast as it is released. With a cloud-hosted software base, new features can be added to your store's capabilities on a regular basis.
Higginson has been running One Stop Express on cloud technology for five years, but will be adding the ability to automatically reconcile credit cards this month. And this is possible without requiring one infrastructure improvement inside the store.
"I don't have to take the time to get experts out here and install the software. It's automatically available to me based on an upgrade to the hosting server," Higginson said.
So while the cloud certainly offers clear advantages, c-store and gas station owners still need to decide if the time is right to make a switch.
Early concerns over the security of cloud-stored data are quickly dissolving, especially with stringent payment card industry (PCI) compliance requirements in place, and prices have dropped as the technology becomes more mainstream. Owners with several locations, or ones that plan to add to their operations, should specifically be interested in adopting cloud technology.
George Olney is chief operating officer at iRely software, a business software provider to petroleum wholesalers and retailers. iRely software currently employs more than 250 people and services more than 350 customers in more than 10 countries around the world. Olney, also a certified public accountant by trade, previously worked as a leading reseller of Epicore and Sage technologies.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.